Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 14

A Social Work Model of Empathy

Karen E. Gerdes
Elizabeth A. Segal

Abstract: This article presents a social work model of empathy that reflects the latest
interdisciplinary research findings on empathy. The model reflects the social work
commitment to social justice. The three model components are: 1) the affective response
to anothers emotions and actions; 2) the cognitive processing of ones affective response
and the other persons perspective; and 3) the conscious decision-making to take
empathic action. Mirrored affective responses are involuntary, while cognitive
processing and conscious decision-making are voluntary. The affective component
requires healthy, neural pathways to function appropriately and accurately. The
cognitive aspects of perspective-taking, self-awareness, and emotion regulation can be
practiced and cultivated, particularly through the use of mindfulness techniques.
Empathic action requires that we move beyond affective responses and cognitive
processing toward utilizing social work values and knowledge to inform our actions. By
introducing the proposed model of empathy, we hope it will serve as a catalyst for
discussion and future research and development of the model.
Key Words: Empathy, social empathy, social cognitive neuroscience

INTRODUCTION
Ask a social worker if empathy is important to practice, and the response is likely to
be yes. Ask for a social work definition or social work conceptual model of empathy,
and the response is likely to be is there one? Other disciplines have attempted to define
empathy and construct models to explain what it is. Today, even politicians are weighing
in on the importance of empathy. President Obama used empathy as one of his criteria
for selecting a nominee to the Supreme Court (Hook & Parsons, 2009). An examination
of the emerging interdisciplinary research and literature on empathy, together with the
strength of empathy as a tool for our professional work, make it imperative that social
work embrace a model of empathy that not only fits but enhances our discipline. While
other disciplines have their unique perspectives, their conceptualizations of empathy are
not always a perfect fit for social work. In this article, we propose a social work model of
empathy that reflects the latest interdisciplinary findings, particularly those of social
cognitive neuroscience, and places them within the context of social work values and
perspectives.
Empathy is Critical to Social Work Practice However it is Defined
The list of studies in social work mentioning the importance of empathy is
significant. Recent studies on the importance of practitioner-to-client empathy would fill
several volumes. [Examples include Berg, Raminani, Greer, Harwood & Safren (2008);
_________________
Karen E. Gerdes, Ph.D., is an associate professor and Elizabeth A. Segal, Ph.D., is a professor, both in the School of Social
Work at Arizona State University.
Copyright 2009 Advances in Social Work Vol. 10 No. 2 (Fall 2009), 114-127

ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Fall 2009, 10(2)

115

Forrester, Kershaw, Moss & Hughes (2007); Green & Christensen (2006); Mishara et al.
(2007); and Sale, Bellamy, Springer & Wang (2008)]. While empathy is essential to an
effective client-worker relationship, it is also crucial that we help populations such as atrisk parents, partners, and sex offenders to develop and cultivate empathy (Curtner-Smith
et al., 2006, Busby & Gardner, 2008; Hunter, Figueredo, Becker & Malamuth, 2007;
Waldinger, Schultz, Hauser, Allen & Crowell 2004). Parental empathy has been cited as
crucial for raising healthy children (Curtner-Smith et al., 2006). Partner empathy is a key
element in satisfying relationships (Busby & Gardner, 2008; Waldinger et al., 2004).
Empathy is one of the core elements of healthy relationships at every level, and is
therefore a pivotal theme in social work theory and practice.
Interestingly though, empathy is never mentioned in the NASW Code of Ethics nor
does it have an entry in the Encyclopedia of Social Work. Empathy is listed once in the
CSWE Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards [Section 2.1.10(a)] (Council on
Social Work Education, 2008) as one of several general components of practice. The
Social Work Dictionary (Barker, 2003) does provide an entry and defines empathy
broadly as The act of perceiving, understanding, experiencing, and responding to the
emotional state and ideas of another person (p. 141). The ubiquitous nature of empathy
in social work practice and the lack of a concrete conceptualization of empathy, rather
than a lack of regard for the importance of empathy may explain its limited presence in
important social work documents.
The very familiarity of the word empathy renders it somewhat vague. Common
usage often creates false assumptions and misunderstandings, and this process is
definitely at work in current social work literature on empathy. Morgan and Morgan
(2005) noted that most social work researchers and educators seem to assume simply
telling practitioners Empathy is very important is enough to convey a precise message
and make the listeners proficient in practice - an assumption which, however wellintentioned, is incorrect. Pithers (1999) noted that operational definitions [of empathy]
are not consistent across studies (p. 258) and there has been considerable confusion over
whether empathy is a multidimensional or unidimensional construct. As a result of this
semantic fuzziness, conceptualizations and measurement techniques for empathy vary so
much that it has been difficult to engage in meaningful comparisons or make significant
conclusions about how we define empathy, measure it, and effectively cultivate it in
social workers and clients (Cliffordson, 2001). Lest we are overly critical of social work,
these problems of definition, measurement and conceptualizations are shared across
disciplines, and likely have contributed to social works lack of depth in both how we
define and how we teach empathy.
There is a general agreement across disciplines that empathy is the ability to imagine
what another person is feeling and thinking. In this context, empathy has been presented
as a dispositional trait, a cognitive skill, a physiological reaction or some combination of
these components. Is it an innate trait? A cognitive skill? Is it a feeling, a thought, or an
action? Can it be taught? Can it be learned? If we have it, can we develop more? To
develop, cultivate, and use empathy effectively in practice, it would be beneficial to have
a model that answers these questions, and we propose such a model.

Gerdes, Segal/A SOCIAL WORK MODEL OF EMPATHY

116

WHAT DO WE KNOW (ALMOST) FOR SURE ABOUT EMPATHY?


Empathy and Developmental Psychology
German and American psychologists, Theodor Lipps (1903) and Edward Tichener
(1909) first used the word einfhlung or empathy to describe a psychological
phenomenon or the inner imitation an observer experiences when observing another
person or object (Davis, 1996; Iacoboni, 2008). Empathy was conceived as both a passive
reflection of another, and as an active effort to get inside another. The dual nature of
empathy, while not initially embraced by every researcher across disciplines, is now
widely acknowledged. Hoffman (1984) and other developmental psychologists placed
empathy and its dual nature in the context of the continuum of human development.
Developmental psychologists recognized that as infants we rely on mimicry to
develop our ability to automatically recognize what our parents and others are feeling. As
we age, we develop the ability to take on other roles and imagine the feelings of others
(i.e., the cognitive processing part of empathy). More recently, Hoffman (2000) put forth
five modes of empathic arousal. The first three are automatic, involuntary and hence
primitive: mimicry, conditioning, and direct association. The other two, which are
culturally influenced and involve cognition, are mediated association and role-taking.
Hoffmans focus was on empathic distress because he regarded the discomfort of
seeing someone in distress as what motivates people to prosocial moral action.
Alleviation of distress was part of the motivation behind psychological research on
empathy during the early 1990s. Batson (1991) viewed empathy as a means to altruistic
behavior. He and his co-researchers argued that empathy is related to other personal
motives, such as reducing the pain of watching and feeling others suffer or for the sense
of rewards in helping others (Batson et al., 1991). His link to altruism is persuasive, but
not conclusive. The research used stories of personal distress, and asked participants
whether they would help. Such experiments were all hypothetical and did not measure
mirroring or physiological affective responses. Thus, empathy may lead to altruistic
outcomes, but it also may not. People may do good deeds for all sorts of reasons,
including personal reward or satisfaction, sympathy, guilt, or due to other egoistic
motivations. The contributions of Batsons research to analyzing the link between
empathy and positive social outcomes is an important part of our understanding of
empathy. But the confirmation of the physiological imperative of empathy had yet to be
discovered.
Davis (1996) developed a model that includes most of the empathy constructs that
have been developed prior to the recent neurobiological discoveries related to empathy.
His model starts with what he calls antecedents, goes through multiple processes, and
results in outcomes. The antecedents include biological capacities as well as learned
socializations. The processes include the action of motor mimicry as well as active
cognitive processing. The outcomes are divided into two categories, intrapersonal and
interpersonal, including affective response (physiologically feeling something), and
cognitive processing of attribution (figuring out how the other person feels and why
based on the observed behaviors). His model, while comprehensive and inclusive of all

ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Fall 2009, 10(2)

117

major concepts, is very complicated and mixes the physiological and cognitive aspects of
empathy throughout the model. He does include the outcomes of empathic feelings, but
limited to the individual level.
Empathy and Mirror Neurons
In recent years, a great deal of research in the field of social cognitive neuroscience
has emerged identifying the biophysical components that mediate empathy in the brain
(Decety & Jackson, 2004; Decety & Lamm, 2006; Decety & Moriguchi, 2007). This new
neuroscience uses sophisticated brain imaging equipment to confirm what many have
suspected for years: that when we see another persons actions (for example pain,
laughing or crying), our bodies respond as if we feel a degree of that action too. This
phenomenon is called mirroring, and the circuitry of the brain responsible for this are
called mirror neurons (Iacoboni, 2008). These cells that transmit nerve impulses are
defined as neurons that fire when an action is performed or when the same action is
observed (Kaplan & Iacoboni, 2006, p. 175). This may seem simple, but the
confirmation is significant.
We now know through the work of neuroscientists that the human brain is wired to
mimic other people, and this mimicry involves actual involuntary, physiological
experience in the observer. Human beings tend to imitate actions that they see.
Physiologically, our brains include mirror neurons, which react to actions that are seen as
if we are doing the action ourselves. It is largely an unconscious and automatic
experience. When we hear people speak, observe their vocal nuances, watch their
posture, gestures, and facial expressions, etc., neural networks in our brains are
stimulated by the shared representations, generating feelings within us that reflect the
experience of those we are observing. Our drive to imitate seems to be powerfully
present at birth and never declines (Iacoboni, 2008, p. 47). Imitation helps us to learn to
interact with our surroundings and socialize. It may be a key component for learning to
speak. Research suggests that the more imitation a toddler engages in, the better the
childs later facility at speaking and language acquisition (Nadel, 2002; Eckerman &
Didow, 1996). The lack of physiological mirroring seems to relate to a lack of empathy.
Neurologists have discovered some evidence that affective sharing is physically
diminished in people with autism (Dapretto et al., 2006; Decety & Moriguchi, 2007).
Earlier research found that brain injury diminished empathy (Eslinger, 1998). These
findings suggest that genetics or biological composition may play a role in human
capacity to experience affective sharing. Iacoboni (2008) explains the entire neurological
process as follows:
Mirror neuron areas help us understand the emotions of other people by some
form of inner imitation. According to this mirror neuron hypothesis of empathy,
our mirror neurons fire when we see others expressing their emotions, as if we
were making those facial expressions ourselves. By means of this firing, the
neurons also send signals to emotional brain centers in the limbic system to make
us feel what other people feel (p. 119).

Gerdes, Segal/A SOCIAL WORK MODEL OF EMPATHY

118

While the response is automatic and hence involuntary, there is a conditioning


element as well. From a young age children are often reinforced for their imitative
behavior, particularly if those behaviors are socially desirable. For example, adults often
smile at babies and try to get them to smile back. As the infant is hard-wired to imitate, it
does smile back, delighting the adult, which gives the infant positive reinforcement for
the mirroring.

A SOCIAL COGNITIVE NEUROSCIENCE CONCEPTUALIZATION OF


EMPATHY
Decety and colleagues (Decety & Jackson, 2004; Decety & Lamm, 2006; Decety &
Moriguchi, 2007) combined cumulative, qualitative descriptions of empathy from the
social sciences with the new findings in social cognitive neuroscience, which led to a
conceptualization of empathy as the dynamic interaction of four neural networks. All
four networks are empirically observable brain phenomena, and all four components must
come into play for a human to experience the full extent of empathy. If any of the
components is missing or inhibited, the subjective experience of empathy fails to emerge.
The components identified by Decety and colleagues are listed below (Decety &
Moriguchi, 2007, p. 4).
1.

Affective sharing. The experience of similar emotions between the self and an
other, based on automatic perception-action coupling and shared
representations. (See the previous discussion on mirror neurons).

2.

Self awareness. Even when there is some temporary identification between the
observer and its target, there is no confusion between self and other.

3.

Mental flexibility. The cognitive capacity to imagine anothers situation from


the inside, to adopt the subjective perspective of the other.

4.

Emotion regulation. The regulatory processes that modulate the subjective


feelings associated with emotion.

Self-Awareness
Self-awareness refers to recognizing and understanding ones own emotions,
strengths, limitations, and motives (Goleman, Boyatzis & McKee, 2002). London (2002)
describes it as self-insight or the ability to be self-understanding, self-monitoring, and
self-evaluating. Both these authors agree that healthy, high-functioning individuals are
consistently aware of their own emotional condition, but are also conscious of how they
impact others. In other words, high-functioning social beings are aware of both their
private and public selves: what they perceive, and how they are perceived by others.
Mental Flexibility/Perspective-taking
Mental flexibility, also called perspective-taking, is mediated in a part of the brain
that deals with executive functiona task-based way of getting things done. It is the
ability to toggle between what you are feeling and what the other person is feeling, while
maintaining the self-awareness to know there is a boundary between the two. Simply put,

ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Fall 2009, 10(2)

119

the brain treats mental flexibility as a job, not a feeling. It requires a logistical, rational
understanding of other peoples experience. For example, a parent may have to logically
take the perspective of an infant to imagine what it would be like to be weak, small,
helpless, preverbal, and so on. At the same time, the parent must be aware of his or her
own perspective as the strong adult who can care for this weak, helpless infant. Mental
flexibility is the understanding that the other person is like me, but is not me. Role taking
is another component often considered part of empathy. While others have described it in
terms of child development, Davis (1996) includes it in his discussion of empathy, citing
it as a cognitive process in which the individual suppresses his or her usual egocentric
outlook and imagines how the world appears to others (p. 6).
Emotion Regulation
Emotion regulation refers to an internal ability to change or control ones own
emotional experience. Sometimes, feeling what others are feeling can be overwhelming,
and one can lose sight of whose feelings are whose. We might see this as overidentification with another person, or from a clinical perspective see it as lack of
boundaries. Most people use a variety of cognitive and affective strategies to achieve
emotion regulation; soothing self-talk, motivational visualizations, seeking affirmation
from others, listening to music, and so on. Psychotherapists and, of course, social workers
are often responsible for teaching clients emotion regulation techniques (Linehan, 1993).
One way that we may regulate our emotions is through judgment. To what extent we
believe people deserve to feel the way they do can impact our empathy towards them
(Davis, 1996). In fact, we may have a bias towards those we deem worthy of our concern.
There is a tremendous amount of literature on group or kin selection, which is far beyond
the scope of this article (see Hamilton, 1964; Hoffman, 1981). However, the tendency to
favor survival and reproduction of those who share our genetic make-up in order to
ensure the continuation of our species can affect our processing of empathic feelings. If
we are taught that we are different from another tribe, or race, for example, then we can
pass judgment that cognitively overrides empathic affective responses we may have.
Such cognitive processing may be the reason people have been able to witness atrocities
against other human beings and stifle, ignore or process away sharing of feelings. If the
slave being whipped before your eyes is regarded as different from you or inhuman, then
feelings of empathy can be cognitively dismissed. We conclude that the voluntary aspects
of cognitive processing are part of our socialization and therefore can be taught.
While part of this interdisciplinary model is known territory for social work
researchers, the neurological evidence supporting the model has powerful new
implications. In recent years, neuroimaging studies have allowed scientists to locate the
neural networks in specific parts of the brain that mediate each of the four components of
empathy. Detailing all of the brain studies is beyond the scope of this article, but the work
of Decety and colleagues (Decety & Jackson, 2004; Decety & Lamm, 2006; Decety and
Moriguchi, 2007) provides evidence of this link.
These four components go far in linking earlier psychological research with recent
neuroscience findings to conceptualize empathy. However, what is missing is a broader
environmental component and the place of social justice. We propose building on this

Gerdes, Segal/A SOCIAL WORK MODEL OF EMPATHY

120

model and adding aspects that take into consideration environmental contexts and social
justice.

A SOCIAL WORK MODEL OF EMPATHY


Based on the aforementioned theorists and numerous studies on empathy as an
intellectual foundation, coupled with years of social work experience, we have developed
a model that incorporates the findings of other disciplines, particularly social cognitive
neuroscience, but is uniquely placed within social work. This model reflects the personin-environment approach of social work and the commitment to social justice, which is a
core value of the profession (NASW, 2008). The model we propose consists of three
components, all of which build upon the prior part: 1) the affective response to anothers
emotions and actions; 2) the cognitive processing of ones affective response as well as
the other persons perspective; and 3) the conscious decision-making to take empathic
action. Table 1 outlines the model.
Table 1:
Component

Social Work Model of Empathy


Definition

Key Aspects
1,2,3,4

Ways to Develop

Affective
Response

Involuntary, physiological
reaction to anothers
emotions and actions.

Mirroring
Mimicry5
Conditioning6

Promote healthy
neurological
pathways

Cognitive
Processing

Voluntary mental thought


processes used to interpret
ones affective response;
enables one to take the
other persons perspective.

Self- awareness6
Mental flexibility7
Role taking6
Emotion regulation7,8
Labelling6
Judgment6
Perspective taking7,8
Self-agency8

Set boundaries
Practice
mindfulness
Use role plays

Conscious
Decision-making

Voluntary choices for


action made in response to
cognitive processing.

Empathic action9
Social empathy10,11,12,13
Morality5
Altruism14,15,16

Helping
Advocacy
Organizing
Social Action

10

Iacoboni (2008)
Kaplan & Iacoboni (2006)
3
Gallese & Goldman (1998)
4
Rizzolatti & Craighero (2004)
5
Hoffman (2000)
6
Davis (1996)
7
Decety & Moriguchi (2007)
8
Decety & Jackson (2006)

Gerdes & Segal (In press)


Segal (2008)
11
Segal (2007a)
12
Segal (2007b)
13
Segal (2006)
14
Batson (1991)
15
Batson et al. (1991)
16
Batson et al. (2003)

The first component, affective response, encompasses the involuntary physical


reactions we have that are triggered by our exposure to external events. The second
component of empathy is the cognitive processing of mirrored emotions and actions. This

ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Fall 2009, 10(2)

121

process is voluntary mental thought that strives to interpret the physiological sensations
as well as the thoughts that mirroring triggers. It includes the components of selfawareness, mental flexibility and emotion regulation. This process results in an
understanding of the lived experiences of others. The third component, conscious
decision-making is the piece that draws from social work, the need to take action. The
imperative of social justice, which is clearly outlined as a value of social work (see the
NASW Code of Ethics and the CSWE Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards,
2008) (Council on Social Work Education, 2008; National Association of Social
Workers, 1999), requires that social workers engage in practices that advance social
justice. To empathically understand people means to enter into their situations in ways
that reveal inequalities and disparities. Such awareness must be followed by action to
promote fairness, which is the advancement of social justice.
Our proposed model requires that all three components of empathy be present in
order to experience empathy that is rooted in social justice as well as social cognitive
neuroscience. It is currently not possible to weigh each component. However, the extent
of mirroring, processing, and action-taking may vary in different circumstances. What
neuroscience has proven through the use of brain imaging (fMRI) is that affective
response must be followed by cognitive processing to experience empathy (Decety &
Moriguchi, 2007).
Is Empathic Action a Necessary Component of Empathy?
The first two components, affective response and cognitive processing, are widely
accepted as the necessary components of empathy and typically discussions of empathy
end after describing these components. As Decety & Moriguchi (2007) identify in their
list of components, empathy exists when there is affective sharing, self-awareness, mental
flexibility and emotion regulation. In their model, taking action based on the affective
response and cognitive processing is not required for one to experience the full extent of
empathy. Davis (1996) model is multi-dimensional and includes outcomes, but is limited
to the individual. The author himself notes this as a limitation (p. 220). For Hoffman
(2000) empathy might transform the task of choosing among abstract principles into an
empathy-relevant task that leads one to imagine the consequences of different systems for
societys least advantaged people or for people who work hard (p. 230). He hopes that
empathy can be linked to caring and justice principles (p. 298). Iacoboni (2008) accepts
that although we have neuroscientific evidence of empathy, it does not guarantee action.
He hopes that a more explicit level of understanding of our empathetic nature will at
some point be a factor in the deliberate, reflective discourse that shapes society (p. 271).
We argue that empathy is not simply a condition, a nature, or a domain, rather it is an
induction process that culminates in empathic action. Empathic action is the result of the
third component of the model, conscious decision-making. In our view, and more
specifically from a social work perspective, having empathic feelings and participating in
perspective-taking is not the full extent of empathy. Having empathy includes voluntarily
taking action in response to the cognitive processing that is in response to the initial
affective response. This is where social works value of social justice and full integration
of person-in-the-environment comes into play. As social workers, to be empathic is to

Gerdes, Segal/A SOCIAL WORK MODEL OF EMPATHY

122

experience the affect, process it, and then take appropriate, effective, empathy-driven
action. The empathic actions we take can impact individuals, groups, communities and
even society. Segal (2007a; 2007b; 2008) describes social empathy, which is the action of
using our empathic experiences and understanding to shape public policy. This is a form
of empathic action. Without action in response to the empathic induction process, we
believe a person is not truly empathic. A social work model of empathy includes action.
Being empathic means understanding the situation of others and taking action in response
to the interpretation of the situation. Two examples illustrate the point.
The Empathy Model in Action
New social workers often find themselves overwhelmed the first time they visit a
family in a socially and economically isolated neighborhood. The deprivation and
desperation is often visible everywhere. For example: A family preservation worker visits
a single mother living in a poor, rural area. The mother has been referred by her
childrens teacher who is afraid the children are being neglected. The mother appears
depressed; she has no food to put on the table for dinner. If the worker does not have an
advanced degree of self-awareness, and has not been trained to cognitively process his or
her affective responses in this situation, it is easy to be overcome with feelings of pity
and sympathy. There is an overwhelming urge to jump in and try to solve an immediate
problem for instance, to give the mother money to buy food for dinner or to go to the
store and buy food for the family. An empathic action or response is to help the mother
assess her situation, identify resources she can rely on in an emergency (e.g., family,
neighbors, local food bank) and then help her to plan ways to avoid being in this situation
again. Consideration of the larger environment as part of the workers cognitive
processing may also require action on a macro level, such as helping to create
employment opportunities. Pity and sympathy often inspire actions that are enabling or
disempowering, whereas empathic action is driven by knowledge of the person-inenvironment framework and the strengths perspective and result in empowerment.
There are several examples of social policies that have been, at least in part, the result
of empathic action. For example, when Robert Kennedy visited Jackson, Mississippi in
1967, he introduced the country to a level of hunger and malnutrition that few were even
aware existed in the United States. Kennedys description of his visits with families were
not only inspiring, they were filled with empathy. As a result, he was able to push
Congress to open the Food Stamps Program and provide stamps for the needy (Mills,
2006). When decision-makers like Kennedy are able to toggle back and forth between
what it would be like to live in a poor Mississippi community, and their own life
experience, they are more readily able to identify social and economic inequities. On the
other hand, staying away from personal visits and labeling people living in poverty as
undeserving or lazy allows decision-makers to separate themselves from the people
in need and thereby avoid issues of social justice. Empathy requires moving beyond
feeling sympathy or pity and being overwhelmed by the seeming hopelessness of the
situation. It is imperative that social workers be taught and trained to practice selfawareness, mental flexibility, emotion regulation, and perspective taking. Mental
flexibility encourages us to ask what is fair and right; self-other awareness and emotion

ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Fall 2009, 10(2)

123

regulation can help prevent compassion fatigue and burnout. An empathic perspective is
more likely to result in actions that utilize strengths, empower clients, and promote social
and economic justice.
Is Empathy All or Nothing?
Our model includes both unconscious or automatic affective responses and cognitive
processing as well as consciously choosing to take empathy-driven action. However, the
extent to which we can experience all three components, or the full extent of empathy,
when confronted by any given situation varies greatly. This suggests that there is a
dynamic nature to empathy. Some aspects are experienced more than others, and in
varying degrees by different people. This is due in part to varying skill levels required for
effective cognitive processing as well as variation in the strength of healthy neural
pathways.
The experience of empathy is not perfectly linear, although the model is described in
a progressive, linear fashion. However, if we try to define empathy without including all
three components, then we dilute the meaning and power of the concept. Empathy from a
holistic social work perspective needs to include all three components. Empathy is not
only a condition, it is an action motivated by affect and cognition.
One important caveat is in order. The involuntary act of mirroring is not discerning.
Human beings are hard-wired to mimic, thus they can be as likely to mirror positive
actions as well as negative actions. Iacoboni (2008) warns us that empathy in action is not
always positive. He hypothesizes that we have atrocities because we have imitative
violence, we can dissociate our mental processes from our reflexive behavior, and that
cross-cultural opportunities for mirroring can be countered by the influence of massive
religious and political belief systems that keep us apart and deny the neurobiology that
links us together. So part of the social work challenge of our model is to not only link
action to affect and cognition, but to nurture action that is positive, that promotes wellbeing, that is socially just. By building a framework of empathy on the principles of
social justice, we can promote imitation of socially constructive behaviors and cognitive
processing that stress our similarities rather than beliefs that are created to divide us.

CONCLUSION
Our mirrored affective responses are involuntary; cognitive processing and conscious
decision-making are voluntary. The affective component requires healthy, lesion-free
neural pathways to function appropriately and accurately. Empathy deficits have been
linked to damaged and/or underdeveloped neural circuitry (Dapretto et al., 2005; Decety
& Moriguchi, 2007). However, we can help people create new neural pathways to
improve their ability to effectively mirror another persons actions and emotions. The
cognitive aspects of perspective-taking, self-awareness, and emotion regulation can be
practiced and cultivated, particularly through the use of mindfulness techniques.
Empathic action requires that we move beyond affective responses and cognitive
processing toward utilizing social work values and knowledge to inform our action
choices. All three components of the model can be taught, practiced, and cultivated. By

Gerdes, Segal/A SOCIAL WORK MODEL OF EMPATHY

124

introducing the proposed model of empathy, we hope social work researchers will engage
in a critical discussion of the model and begin research that can help validate the model.
For example, what are the benchmarks for social workers in terms of empathy levels
required to be an effective practitioner? We are currently field testing a scale that
incorporates the three components of empathy. It is our hope that in the near future, by
utilizing this model social work practitioners can better cultivate client-worker empathy,
and teach clients how to develop greater empathy. Finally, we believe that the importance
the social work profession has placed on empathy must be be matched with a
conceptualization of empathy that is sophisticated and rich with implications for
becoming more effective practitioners.
References
Barker, R. L. (2003). The social work dictionary. Washington, DC: NASW Press.
Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question: Toward a social-psychological answer.
Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Batson, C. D., Batson, J. G., Slindsby, J. K., Harrell, K. L., Peekna, H. M., & Todd, M.
(1991). Empathic joy and the empathy-altruism hypothesis. Journal of Personality
and Social Psychology, 61(3), 413-426.
Batson, C. D., Lishner, D. A., Carpenter, A., Dulin, L., Harjusola-Webb, S., & Stocks, E.
(2003). as you would have them do unto you: Does imagining yourself in the
others place stimulate moral action? Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 29,
1190-1201.
Berg, D., Raminani, S., Greer, J., Harwood, M., & Safren, S. (2008). Participants
perspectives on cognitive-behavioral therapy for adherence and depression in HIV.
Psychotherapy Research, 18(3), 271-280.
Busby, D. M., & Garnder, B. C., (2008). How do I analyze thee? Let me count the ways:
Considering empathy in couple relationships using self and partner ratings. Family
Process, 47(2), 229-242.
Cliffordson, C. (2001). Parents judgments and students self-judgments of empathy.
European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 17(1), 36-47.
Council on Social Work Education. (2008). Educational policy and accreditation
standards. Alexandria, VA: Author.
Curtner-Smith, M. E., Culp, A. M., Culp, R., Scheib, C., Owen, B. S., Tilley, A.,
Murphy, M., Parkman, L., & Coleman, P. W. (2006). Mothers parenting and young
economically disadvantaged childrens relational and overt bullying. Journal of Child
and Family Studies, 15(2), 181-193.
Dapretto, M, Davies, M. S., Pfeifer, J. H., Scott, A. A., Sigman, M., Bookheimer, S. Y.,
& Iacoboni, M. (2006). Understanding emotions in others: mirror neuron ysfunction
in children with autism spectrum disorders. Nature Neuroscience, 9(1), 28-30.

ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Fall 2009, 10(2)

125

Davis, M. H. (1996). Empathy: A social psychological approach. Boulder, CO:


Westview Press.
Decety, J., & Jackson, P. L. (2004). The functional architecture of human empathy.
Behavioral Cognitive Neuroscience Review, 3(2), 71-100.
Decety, J., & Jackson, P. L. (2006). A social-neuroscience perspective on empathy.
Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(2), 54-58.
Decety, J., & Lamm, C. (2006). Human empathy through the lens of social neuroscience.
The ScientificWorldJournal, 6, 1146-1163.
Decety, J., & Moriguchi, Y. (2007). The empathic brain and its dysfunction in psychiatric
populations: Implications for intervention across different clinical conditions.
BioPsychoSocial Medicine, 1, 22-43.
Eckerman, C. O., & Didow, S. M. (1996) Nonverbal imitation and toddlers mastery of
verbal means of achieving coordinated actions. Developmental Psychology, 32, 14152.
Eslinger, P. J. (1998). Neurological and neuropsychological bases of empathy. European
Nerurology, 39, 193-199.
Forrester, D., Kershaw, S., Moss, H., & Hughes, L. (2007). Communication skills in
child protection: How do social workers talk to parents? Child and Family Social
Work, 13, 41-51.
Gallese, V., & Goldman, A. (1998). Mirror neurons and the simulation theory of mindreading. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2(12), 493-501.
Gerdes, K. E., & Segal, E. A. (in press). The importance of empathy for social work
practice: Integrating new science. Social Work.
Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2002). Primal leadership: Realizing the power
of emotional intelligence. Boston: Harvard Press.
Green, E. J., & Christensen, T. M. (2006). Elementary school childrens perceptions of
play therapy in school settings. International Journal of Play Therapy, 15(1), 65-85.
Hamilton, W. D. (1964). The genetic evolution of social behavior. Journal of Theoretical
Biology, 7, 1-52.
Hoffman, M. L. (1981). Is altruism part of human nature? Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology, 40(1), 121-137.
Hoffman, M. L. (1984). Interaction of affect and cognition in empathy. In C. E. Izard, J.
Kagan, & R. B. Zajonc (Eds.), Emotions, cognition, and behavior (pp. 103-131).
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hoffman, M. L. (2000). Empathy and moral development: Implications for caring and
justice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gerdes, Segal/A SOCIAL WORK MODEL OF EMPATHY

126

Hook, J., & Parsons, C. (2009, May 2). Obama says empathy key to court pick; As the
president looks for Souters successor, fellow Democrats split on whether to steer to
the center or the left. The Los Angeles Times, National p. 1.
Hunter, J. A., Figueredo, A. J., Becker, J. V., & Malamuth, N. (2007). Non-sexual
delinquency in juvenile sex offenders: The mediating and moderating influences of
emotional empathy. Journal of Family Violence, 22, 43-54.
Iacoboni, M. (2008). Mirroring people: The new science of how we connect with others.
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Kaplan, J. T., & Iacoboni, M. (2006). Getting a grip on other minds: Mirror neurons,
intention understanding, and cognitive empathy. Social Neuroscience, 1(3/4), 175183.
Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality
disorder. New York: Guilford Press.
Lipps, T. (1903). Einfhlung, inner Nachahmung, und Organaempfindaungen. Archiv fr
die gesamte psychologie, 1, 465-519. [Translated as Empathy, inner imitation and
Sense-Feelings in M. M. Rader (Ed.), (1979), A modern book of esthetics (5th ed.,
pp. 374-382). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston].
London, M. (2002). Leadership development: Paths to self-insight and professional
growth. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Mills, N. (2006). Hurrican Katrina and Robert Kennedy. Dissent Magazine, 53(2): 5-6
Mishara, B. L., Chagnon, F., Daigle, M., Balan, B., Raymond, S., Marcoux, I., Bardon,
C., Campbell, J. K., & Berman, A. (2007). Which helper behaviors and intervention
styles are related to better short-term outcomes in telephone crisis intervention?
Results from a silent monitoring study of calls to the U.S. 1-800-SUICIDE network.
Suicide and Life-threatening Behavior, 37(3), 308-321.
Morgan, W. D., & Morgan, S. T. (2005). Cultivating attention and empathy. In C. K.
Germer, R. D. Siegel, & P. R. Fulton (Eds.), Mindfulness and psychotherapy (pp. 7990). New York: Guilford Press.
Nadel, J. (2002). Imitation and imitation recognition: Functional use in preverbal infants
and nonverbal children with autism. In A. N. Meltzoff and W. Prinz (Eds.), The
imitative mind: Development, evolution and brain bases (pp. 42-57). Cambridge,
UK: Cambridge University Press.
National Association of Social Workers. (1999). NASW Code of Ethics. Washington, DC:
Author.
Pithers, W. (1999). Empathy: Definition, enhancement, and relevance to the treatment of
sexual abusers. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14(3), 257-284.
Rizzolatti, G., & Craighero, L. (2004). The mirror neuron system. Annual Review of
Neuroscience, 27, 169-192.

ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Fall 2009, 10(2)

127

Sale, E., Bellamy, N., Springer, J., & Wang, M. (2008). Quality of provider-participant
relationships and enhancement of adolescent social skills. The Journal of Primary
Prevention, 29(3), 263-278.
Segal, E. A. (2006). Welfare as we should know it: Social empathy and welfare reform.
In K. M. Kilty & E. A. Segal (Eds.), The promise of welfare reform: Political
rhetoric and the reality of poverty in the twenty-first century (pp. 265-274).
Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press
Segal, E. A. (2007a). Social empathy: A new paradigm to address poverty. Journal of
Poverty: Innovations on Social, Political & Economic Inequalities, 11(3), 65-81.
Segal, E. A. (2007b). Social empathy: A tool to address the contradiction of working but
still poor. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Sciences, 88(3),
333-337.
Segal, E. A. (2008). Welfare reform: The need for social empathy. In I. Colby (Ed.),
Comprehensive handbook of social work and social welfare, volume 4: Social policy
and social practice (pp. 371-384). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Tichener, E. (1909). Elementary psychology of the thought processes. New York:
Macmillan.
Waldinger, R. J., Schultz, M. S., Hauser, S. T., Allen, J. P., & Crowell, J. A. (2004).
Reading others emotions: The role of intuitive judges in predicting marital
satisfaction, quality, and stability. Journal of Family Psychology, 18, 58-71.

Authors note:
Address correspondence to: Karen E. Gerdes, Ph.D., School of Social Work, Arizona
State University, 411 North Central Ave, Suite 800, Phoenix, AZ 85004-0689. Email:
kegerdes@asu.edu.